Want to hunt lionfish in Florida? There could be money in it

State officials encourage divers and fishers to hunt for lionfish in an attempt to reduce their numbers

Legal Gear: hook and line, spear, hand-held nets and any otherwise legal harvest gear. A recreational fishing license is not required for recreational fishers targeting lionfish while using a pole spear, a Hawaiian Sling, a handheld net or any spearing device that is specifically designed and marketed exclusively for lionfish. (2011 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lionfish — a spiny, striped invasive species found off the coast of Florida — has become a major threat to the coral reefs surrounding the state since they were first reported in 1985.

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the lionfish population exploded during the 2000s, now being found all along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

FWC officials report that lionfish eat and compete with other native fish, which has negative impacts on Florida’s coral reefs.

Due to this, state officials encourage divers and fishers to hunt for lionfish in an attempt to reduce their numbers.

Lionfish can be harvested year-round with unlimited daily bag limits, and fishing licenses aren’t necessary to hunt lionfish with a pole spear or a handheld net.

Spear at the top is an example of a Hawaiian Sling style device. You are not required to have a recreational fishing license when targeting lionfish using these types of spears. (2012 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

These fish can be found in nearly any depth of water, so you can try to hunt them down while free diving.

However, lionfish hunter Andy Lowe told News 6 that you should try to become a certified diver and invest in the proper equipment if you want to effectively hunt them down.

“They’re a lot more common in the deeper water...” Lowe explained. “Because they have venomous spines, the easiest way to collect them and harvest them is to spear them and then put them in a PVC container. And then you’re not worried about being stung.”

Safe Handling: Use care when handling lionfish, as they have up to 18 venomous spines on their dorsal, pelvic and anal fins that can cause painful stings. Stings can cause swelling, blistering, dizziness, necrosis and even temporary paralysis. If stung, immerse the wound in hot (not scalding) water for 30 to 90 minutes and seek medical attention if necessary. (2013 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Lowe added that there are plenty of tourist destinations that can help less-experienced hunters learn the ropes, too.

“They’re not usually going to let you just go out and try lionfish hunting,” he said. “But there are quite a few places that will take you lionfish diving if you are already a diver. You usually just need to have your own container and a spear.”

PENSACOLA, FL - MAY 19: Divers and chefs take part in the 2017 Lionfish World Championship, where they must spear the most lionfish in order to win in Pensacola, FL on May 19, 2017. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images) (2017 Benjamin Lowy)

For hunters who want to sell their harvested lionfish, they’ll need to grab a saltwater products license.

In addition, the FWC has a list of lionfish wholesale dealers who may accept lionfish catches. That list can be found here.

One of those dealers is Wild Ocean Seafood Market in Titusville, which buys from local suppliers.

Wholesale Manager Christopher Merrifield said that they typically require hunters to remove the lionfish’s venomous parts to get the highest price.

“We typically require our fishermen to go ahead and cut those off,” he said. “That way, my fish cutter in house or the next wholesaler in line doesn’t have to deal with it... If the fish came in, and it was untouched — just as it came out of the ocean — I’d probably be paying around $5 a pound for it. If they de-barb it, I’ll up that a dollar to $6, and if they cut it, I’ll up that to $6.50, typically.”

However, Merrifield added that there’s not much usable meat on a lionfish, which can cut into profit margins.

“The meat is only about 25% of the weight of the fish, and that’s gutted...” he said. “There’s no meat in the head, so it’s just the filets on either side, and unless it’s a sizable fish, those boys are really tiny.”

Lionfish filets tend to be rather small due to their size and the low amount of usable meat. (2015 Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Alternatively, hunters can use their harvested lionfish to cook up a meal at home.

“It’s delicious,” Lowe said. “You just have to be careful because of the venomous spines, but heat breaks down the venom... Being cold, on ice or in the freezer, the venom can still be poked, but I found if you leave it out on the counter at room temperature for about a half hour, then I would just filet it like I do any other fish — and if you do get poked, the sting usually was not bad.”

For more information on how to hunt, sell or filet lionfish, visit the FWC’s website here.

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About the Author:

Anthony, a graduate of the University of Florida, joined ClickOrlando.com in April 2022.